Parasites of the Mind
By Caitanya Carana Dasa
How to immunize our minds against attacks by agents harmful to our spiritual life.
Many of us may sometimes feel fed up with the way things are going in our life. At such times, we feel mentally tired even when we are not physically tired. Because of mental exhaustion, many people seek relief in illusion through time-wasting entertainment at best and self-defeating addiction at worst. Mental tiredness can have several causes, but a common, major, and avoidable cause is the indiscriminate over-exertion of our power to desire, the result of unwittingly welcoming too many superfluous desires into our minds. The Bhagavad-gita (16.21–22) indicates that these distracting desires that prevent us from acting in our best interests fall into three broad categories: lust, anger, and greed.
Lust (the desire to satisfy one’s senses) and greed often fuel our desires for the many worldly objects that enter our vision and imagination, be they glitzy forms or gaudy products. These desires are innumerable and endless, and most of them are unfulfillable in real life. Consequently, a conscious or subconscious irritation builds up within us. When this irritation becomes intolerable, we succumb to anger, which perverts us into becoming sulky (mental) or snappy (verbal) or even beastly (physical). In this way, lust, greed, and anger cumulatively divert our mental focus away from the main goals of our life, both material and spiritual. The resulting inattentiveness makes us falter and blunder while pursuing those goals. As our plans misfire and backfire and nothing seems to be working in our lives, we get mentally exhausted and exasperated.
Thus, our mental exhaustion originates not so much in the external difficulties that life puts in our path as in the internal diversions that prevent us from treading that path effectively. The diversions of lust, greed, and anger are thus like mental parasites that live off our mind’s energies. That’s why Gita wisdom urges us to immunize ourselves against these debilitating parasites and thereby keep ourselves mentally energized and focused on our worthwhile aspirations.
At this point, some readers may object, “Not so fast! Even if I can’t fulfill all the desires that come into my mind, I can fulfill at least some of them. After all, fulfilling material desires is the way to happiness. Why should material desires be compared to parasites?”
Making Our Intelligence Fit
Material desires are like parasites because they almost always subvert, even sabotage, our best interests. When they divert us from our goals, they are the sources of distraction, as explained above. And when they themselves become our goals, their effect is even more deleterious: they become sources of frustration and even devastation. This is the surprising and challenging assertion of the Bhagavad-gita (5.22), which states that the intelligent stay away from material pleasures the goals of material desires because they recognize that such pleasures lead not to happiness but to misery.
We can make our intelligence fit to realize the truth of this Gita verse by using as a contemplation tool the acronym FIT (Futile, Insubstantial, Temporary), which encompasses the three kinds of possible results when we seek material pleasures:
1. Futile: We desire to enjoy, but the opportunity never turns up (e.g. we long for our favorite delicacy in an upcoming feast, but it’s not included on the menu).
2. Insubstantial: We get the opportunity to enjoy, but the enjoyment turns out to be an anti-climax (e.g., the menu includes our cherished delicacy, but it is poorly cooked and falls far below our expectation).
3. Temporary: We enjoy the pleasure, but it ends too soon, due to either limited availability externally or limited capacity internally, leaving us tormented by the craving for more (e.g., the cake tastes good, but there’s not enough of it, or we’re too full to eat more).
Thus, the quest for material pleasures leads us to frustration, sooner or later. This fact vindicates the analogy of material desires as parasites: Just as parasites harm their host bodies, material desires harm their host minds.
Of course, the inability to enjoy a favorite delicacy may not be a serious matter, but the inability to perceive the doomed nature of material pleasures has far more serious ramifications. Some material desires acquire a lifelong vicious grip on people’s minds and impel them to perpetrate vicious acts again and again. After all, aren’t sexual abusers driven mostly by unbridled sexual lust? Aren’t ruthless racketeers who swindle millions of people out of millions of dollars goaded largely by unmanageable greed? Aren’t cold-blooded vengence seekers stimulated principally by uncontrollable anger? If we understand the doomed nature of material pleasures, then we see the tragedy behind the insanity of such people; they inflict much suffering on others in the hope of happiness, but their hope itself is based on a false premise and so is never fulfilled. If only they could make their intelligence fit, they would see that their parasitic material desires are not just wasting their mental energy, but are ruining their lives, and the lives of so many others, all for nothing or for a meager pleasure at best.
Of course, most of us are unlikely to ever be as grievously subjugated by parasitic material desires as rapists and racketeers. Nonetheless, even when our desires don’t impel us to violate legal or moral boundaries, still they take a colossal toll of our mental energies. For example, lust masquerading as love may induce within us the desire for a particular spouse, thereby compelling us to dream and scheme for days and months and years. Let’s apply our fit intelligence to see how FIT may play out here:
1. Futile: The person we desire rejects us outright, thereby bursting the bubble of our fantasies in one go, with one unbearable prick.
2. Insubstantial: That person accepts our proposal and formalizes the relationship, but then we discover that the person is not what our dreams had depicted and that some essential incompatibilities exist between us that can’t be resolved. We are left to watch in helpless dismay as the bubble of our dreams deflates gradually into nothingness.
3. Temporary: That person satisfies our heart to some extent, thereby inflating the bubble of our expectations, but then destiny mercilessly ruptures our relationship: An untimely death heart-wrenchingly bursts the giant bubble of our hopes.
In sad cases like these, our lustinduced misdirection, whichever dead end it meets, is enormously expensive mentally.
All material desires be they for a house, a car, a post, or whatever else extract a significant mental cost and a return that borders on nothing. Material desires can be of many kinds, but the Vedic wisdomtradition categorizes them into six broad groups: lust, anger, greed, envy, pride, and illusion. Among these, the Gita (16.21) highlights the first three as especially able to misdirect the soul, so I am focusing on them.
By sober, sustained analyses of the nature of material pleasures, we recognize that they are unfit to be desired; they will simply suck and sap our mental energies, as parasites suck and sap our physical energies.
This recognition needs to bring about a radical shift in our perception of the spark for these desires: worldly temptations. Just as intelligent people treat parasites with caution and suspicion, and are alert to keep them out of their bodies, we need to treat the parasites of desire with caution and suspicion, and be alert to prevent them from entering our minds by way of temptations.
Temptation: Welcome Tune or Alarm Bell?
The Gita (3.41) warns us to recognize temptation as a symbol of sin (papmanam) and fight it off as soon as it makes its seductive and deceptive appearance.
But when we are intellectually inert, the arrival of temptation sets off a welcome tune in our consciousness; our lethargic intelligence has no strength or spunk to unmask the treacherous façade of temptation. Consequently, the doomed hope that giving in to the temptation will make us happy carries us helplessly, even eagerly, away. In other words, we welcome the parasitic desires injected by the temptations, mistaking them to be benevolent. In contrast, when we are intellectually alert the arrival of the same temptation triggers an alarm bell in our consciousness. Our robust intelligence swings into action to drive it out, knowing well that it is a forerunner of emotional distraction that can snowball into spiritual destruction. Consequently, we gird ourselves for an inner battle that leads to a gradual but inevitable triumph if we seek shelter and strength in remembering Krishna.
Just as freeing the body from parasites requires a systematic and appropriate treatment plan, fighting to free the mind of parasitic material desires requires a systematic and appropriate spiritual treatment plan. In fact, the Bhagavad-gita (6.36) states that without such a plan, self-mastery is nearly impossible whereas with such a plan, it is entirely possible. Let’s now look at what such a plan involves.
Say No by Saying Yes
Even after recognizing the need to curb material desires, many of us often remain mentally preoccupied with the temptations we plan to evade and avoid. This negative or defensive attitude in dealing with the parasitic desires needlessly increases the difficulty of the fight.
To stay away from temptations, many of us use two faculties:
1. Moral conscience, which tells us it is the right thing to do.
2. Philosophical conviction, which tells us it is the beneficial thing to do.
Moral and philosophical discernment is necessary; without it, selfrestraint often becomes an exercise in meaningless and purposeless selftorture. Discernment is necessary, but not sufficient, however. With discernment, we recognize selfrestraint to be right and beneficial, but don’t experience it to be joyful. That’s why the Bhagavad-gita (2.60) states that temptations overpower even a person of discernment endeavoring for self-restraint.
The next verse (2.61) urges us to complement discernment with engagement. When we engage ourselves in service to Krishna especially when we engage our minds in the service of remembering Him then spiritual happiness doesn’t remain an abstract conception or a utopian aspiration; it becomes a concrete reality and a living experience. The Bhagavad-gita (2.62–63) describes how giving our attention to an object stimulates our desires and actions for attaining that object. This universal psychological principle of “whatever catches our attention catches us” normally binds us when we contemplate, for example, the material objects depicted in billboards and commercials. But this same principle can also free us if we intelligently redirect our attention towards Krishna, who makes Himself available and attractive to us by appearing in various ways: His enchanting deities, His soothing holy names, His electrifying kirtanas, His alluring pastimes, His loving devotees, His fulfilling service. These are, in a sense, Krishna’s commercials and billboards. If we strive to consciously give our attention to the aspect of Krishna that attracts our heart, we will soon pleasantly discover that He has caught our attention and thereby caught us. And Krishna’s catching us is supremely auspicious. When He fills our heart with memory of Him and love for Him, material desires get crowded out, and we become freed forever from their torturous infection.
Moreover, service to Krishna is not restricted to activities directly connected to Him. Even our worldly responsibilities can become a service to Krishna if we keep Him in our hearts and strive to fulfill those responsibilities as devotional offerings to Him. Thus, giving up material desires doesn’t necessitate giving up all material activities or responsibilities. What is parasitic and needs to be given up is the false hope that material things can make us happy, because only our loving relationship with Krishna can make us truly happy.
Once the central driving purpose of our life becomes reviving our relationship with Krishna, then we can harmonize our worldly activities with that purpose. When we start using our devotional creativity to discover in every situation, every event, every activity, every interaction the hidden opportunity to serve Krishna, and then say yes to that opportunity, the resulting devotional connection with Krishna through internal remembrance and external service gives us profound spiritual fulfillment. Once we start tasting and valuing this fulfillment, then temptations become exposed for what they are: sources of distraction, not gratification. At that stage, saying no to them becomes not just right and beneficial, but also joyful.
Moreover, the extraordinary transformational potency of Krishna consciousness can make a parasitic relationship symbiotic. The great Vaisnava saint Narottama Dasa Thakura indicates in his book Prema-bhakti-candrika that once we redirect our heart to Krishna, then we can reshape even lust, greed, and anger into aids to our spiritual progress. We can channel the passion of lust towards desiring the best things of the world for Krishna’s service and pleasure. We can use the ardor of greed to tirelessly receive and relish Krishna’s unlimited glories. We can maneuver the power of anger to stop misconceptions and miscreants from obstructing Krishna’s message of love from reaching all of His children.
Thus, saying a resounding yes to Krishna is the most effective way of saying a decisive no to parasitic material desires.
Four Similarities I discussed how material desires are like parasites in four ways:
1. Just as a mild parasitic infection drains us physically, a mild infection by material desires drains us mentally.
2. Just as a severe parasitic infection causes us acute bodily suffering, a severe infection by material desires causes us the acute mental suffering of frustration.
3. Just as we see parasites as potential threats for the body, we need to see material desires as parasites for our minds.
4. Just as we would take an authentic and systematic medical treatment to disinfect ourselves of parasites, we need to take the authentic and systematic spiritual treatment of Krishna consciousness to disinfect ourselves of material desires.
When we realize material desires to be parasitic and strive to free ourselves from them, then we will stop them from dissipating our mental energy. We will surprise ourselves with our remarkably high mental energy and will be able to achieve much more both materially and spiritually. Materially, we will be able to fulfill our worldly responsibilities with greater diligence and competence. More important, spiritually, we will be able to cultivate and experience spiritual happiness in this very life. And at the end of our life we will be able to return to Krishna for a life of eternal love and happiness.